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April 2012: Get free TV with Roku via the internet

Updated 6-28-12


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We've been cable TV subscribers for literally decades. During some years we had premium channels too. However, once we realized those premium channels only offered a handful of new and interesting shows or films every month, with most everything else being virtually identical to the content of non-premium channels (and the premium channels began filling up with commercials just like the non-premiums too), we dropped those extra cost options.

Some years later the cable company began offering broadband internet as well, and we gladly switched over from dial up (although the cable broadband was awfully glitchy and outage-prone for its first six years or so).

Fed up with the cable company

Fast forward another 15 years or so, and the non-premium cable channels have become over 50% commercials time-wise, so far as I can tell, based on what's playing when I randomly sit down to eat in front of the tube. And the content in-between those commercials has become like a single year frozen in time: for the networks in that zone have simply stopped showing new films entirely, ever. This was a very recent development; prior to that, we'd at least get a new one every few weeks or so (even if it wasn't a very good one). But in past months, the flow of new films, good or bad, simply came to a complete halt, across the board. Apparently you now have to pay a premium over and above 'extended basic' cable, to ever see a fresh movie on your TV again.

Even as the commercials have increased and the new movies have dried up, more and more religious or quasi-religious channels or shopping channels have been added-- while what few channels we previously liked disappeared, sometimes being moved into a premium tier. One of the latest such casualties for us was the Hallmark channel, where you could at least catch an ancient rerun of Little House on a Prairie, when nothing else was on. Now that's gone too.

Atop all this, our cable company had been steadily ratcheting up our monthly bill over the years. Or in other words, continually charging us ever more, while giving us ever less in return. If I recall correctly, our most recent bill charged us $8.00 more than its immediate predecessor.

So on March 23rd, we dropped the TV portion of our cable subscription (while retaining the internet).

The alternatives

In some choice locations in the USA today, you might be able to pick up a dozen or more broadcast HD channels via antenna. We're very nearly as rural as you can get though, and so we're out of luck: according to all available info on the subject, we'd need one of the biggest outdoor antennas around to get just a single HD channel-- and if we were very lucky, we might even get two.

Buying an expensive antenna and then crawling up on the roof to install it for a chance at two measly broadcast network TV channels doesn't seem worth it to me. But besides having some occasional TV fare to tickle your fancy, there's also the weather alerts and such to consider. We got hit by a tornado a little over a year ago (suffering well over $10,000 in damages, but no injuries), but at least we had some warning from TV weather alerts that it was coming.

Fortunately there's a few low cost options for the alerts thing: a free weather app for your smartphone (I'm using Accuweather at present), or a weather alert radio (the Ambient Weather WR-111 Emergency Solar Hand Crank AM/FM/NOAA Weather Radio, Flashlight, Cell Phone Charger with Weather Alert seems like a possible good choice for that (and was selling for just $35.00 when I ran across it online)).

As for some non-cable sourced TV entertainment...I'd been occasionally checking the state of the art in set top boxes for TV watching derived from the internet for some years now. Sure, you can technically watch many films and TV shows from your computer, but I personally don't like that form of recreation or entertainment. I already spend way too much time hunched over a keyboard for work reasons, thanks: I'd rather be able to sit back in an easy chair and just click a remote for some passive TV watching after work. Plus, it can take a whole heap of searching online to find the video content you want there, in a format you require, and with restrictions you can tolerate (I hate censorship in media). When I quit work for the day, I don't want to then undertake yet more work, just to find some TV to watch. And atop all that, I want the lowest cost TV entertainment I can get, since I just barely derive any value out of most it anyway.

Anarchy has mostly reigned in the independent TV set top box market for a while now, much as it did in the ebook market until Amazon triggered some massive consolidation with its Kindle. But a few leaders seem to be emerging from the turmoil now. It's still unclear which box or brand will be the eventual top champion of it all, and none of the present candidates are anywhere near perfect for the role. But my best guess from personal research is that Roku and Apple TV are currently neck and neck for first place in this nascent field.

Both boxes share some commonalities, while also offering some advantages or benefits unique to each. If you're a huge Apple fan, and/or already own a relatively new iPhone and/or iPad, an Apple TV should tie in better with your existing gear than a Roku. Too, if you're an Apple fan, you probably won't mind paying for a bigger proportion of everything you watch with the device either, than you might with a Roku (for Roku's current lead seems to be in free or low cost TV options).

Roku and HDMI

I ordered a Roku 2 XS online at 2:10 PM Tuesday, March 27th directly from Roku, including an HDMI cable, and extra memory (2GB) card, for $115 ($114.97). I went with the slowest shipping method, which was free. I received it around noon Friday, March 30th.

Only the briefest of hard copy instructions accompany the Roku. However, that's probably sufficient for most cases.

Unfortunately, following those instructions immediately revealed a problem with my unit. Namely, it wouldn't work with our LG flat screen's HDMI port. Or its second. I could get the bouncing Roku letters as it booted up, but after that the TV reported no signal, and presented a blank screen. Occasionally you'd see a very fast flicker of something else pass across the display, but mostly it was the blank screen. I tried the Roku's reset button too, as well as powering down everything, and then powering up again, and reconnecting it all from scratch. It just wouldn't work.

So I tried the composite video cable bundled with the Roku. I got a display from that, but this particular TV was too far from my wifi router to get sufficient signal for the box to access the internet. So I gave up on that 42 inch TV (as that's a two man job to safely move around) and grabbed a 31 incher from a different room, to park somewhere I could get a physical wire to the device (Ethernet).

The Roku wouldn't work with the HDMI ports of our Sanyo flat screen either (which is a much newer TV than the LG). So I went with the composites again.

The facts of what worked and what didn't seemed to point to either a hardware or software defect in my Roku box, in regards to HDMI display: a defect that only comes into play after it has fully booted.

As the first thing the Roku did once accessing the internet was update its software, I had hopes that would correct the problem, and so tried the HDMI cable again later-- but it didn't help.

My Roku account and thousands of free movies, TV show episodes, live feeds, and video and audio clips

Once it updated its software, it informed me I had to use a computer to go to the Roku site and input a code to get the box to function. So I did. It next prompted me to create a Roku account, including handing over my credit card info to enable purchases of services, and set my preferences about restricting such purchases (like requiring a PIN number every time).

I then had to wait for the Roku mother-ship to activate my box. The wait mostly came from downloading a free Angry Birds game, which I figured my nephews might like. Birds required 200 seconds to download.

After this I needed to add some channels from Roku's Channel Store. Note that the store doesn't tell you the cost of a channel until you try to add it [CORRECTION: The store does inform you, when you click on the channel icon for a description; I merely got the wrong impression on my first go round].

I ignored every channel which wasn't free, or else was free to download, but not to actually use (like NetFlix or Hulu Plus). I also tried to avoid channels which required you and your Roku to pull your computer into a threesome for the channel to work (it'd have to be a pretty spectacular channel for me to be willing to do that).

I found quite a few to choose from (I had added 40 at last check). So far the standouts appear to be:

Crackle (movies)

Crunchyroll (anime and other Asian content)

Popcornflix (movies and TV shows)

Pub-D-Hub (lots of old TV shows and films)

Weatherundergound (local weather radar)

Nowhere TV (basically seems to offer most of what our old cable TV sub did, plus more)

Archive.org (plenty of old TV shows and films and lots, lots more)

Retrovision (lots of old TV shows and films)

BBC World News

Local channels

Could I get any local channels? No. But quite a few metro area Roku users probably can, as maybe dozens of such local channels are available on the box, via one or more of the selections. I ran across locals for places like Denver Colorado and San Francisco California, and various New England spots (among others), I believe.

6-28-12 UPDATE: Although I still don't have any local channels, I have managed to add channels to the Roku which allow me to view local weather radar, and get local weather news, forecasts, and alerts. However, as we haven't yet had any serious weather problems during our Roku ownership, I've not yet had the chance to test it under those conditions. END UPDATE.

Roku channels in general

Some Roku channels contain relatively little, while others are like enormous lakes of material-- where sometimes a single button icon among dozens there will open up into still more large lakes all its own, content-wise (it can be breathtaking at times to see this unfold).

From what I can tell, a handful of all new Roku channels are announced practically every week. Of course, most of them are junk many probably wouldn't want (there's a surfeit of religious and church-related channels available for the box, for instance). But all indications are that some more truly good stuff could pop up at any time.

I'm just focusing on free content here: anyone willing to pay $8.00 a month or so could add Netflix or Hulu Plus-- and for double that, get both. In fact, that seems to be what most owners of boxes like the Roku do with them. And $16 a month for all the films and TV shows you could watch would still be only a fraction of what we were previously paying our cable TV provider, to watch a far less interesting and diverse collection of reruns and also-rans.

However, if you consume free content on Roku, and everything free you can find on the net via PC, plus play games and occasionally buy a DVD or go to the theater too, you might not find much need or desire for anything more. Or at least that's true for me personally (and I don't even do the games, theater, or DVD things, myself).

More about HDMI

I considered returning my Roku due to its HDMI problem (since I think a few shows and films would display in a bit higher resolution if the box could use that cable). But the images look pretty good already, even via the composite cables, and I'm not one of those people who thinks the difference between HD and old fashioned video is all that wonderful or worthwhile. I mean, do I really want to see the pores, acne, and wrinkles on people's faces? No. And I absolutely hate the hassle of returning stuff (that hassle is one excellent reason to severely limit what you buy in this world). So I did a bit more digging into the Roku's HDMI problem.

I searched the web for “HDMI problem”, and got over 52 million hits. So lots of folks are having HDMI problems, and not just with Rokus. I learned that from initially searching for such problems specifically relating to Roku boxes.

Turns out the whole HDMI standard for ports and cables started out as a neat way to boost TV resolution and complex programming capabilities, but ended up being high jacked by over zealous corporations for anti-piracy measures, so that now it can be very iffy getting any one random device to work with another via the interface, for completely legitimate and legal users and purposes (ouch!).

Common HDMI problems and solutions: Tutorial: How to troubleshoot and fix HDMI connection issues By Chris Jenkins, February 9th 2011

So I decided it probably wouldn't be worth the trouble to return the box, and/or deal with customer support, considering the perfectly acceptable level of functionality I was getting with the composite cables, and the apparently iffy prospects of ever getting the HDMI cable to work with my present TVs, since I'd already tried quite a few general purpose remedies, such as resetting the box, trying the cable with different TVs, powering off everything, then powering on again, updating the software, etc. I did come across a few more esoteric things to try on various net forums (including Roku's own), and will run through them when I get the opportunity (for instance, I'll soon have a different HDMI cable to try), but don't hold out much hope of any of them working. And from what I've seen online, even if you do get a HDMI connection to work, it may only do so temporarily or intermittently (yuck!), as the gauntlet of complex anti-piracy measures inside it must be passed through again each and every time you use the device: so you're never farther than one viewing session away from your HDMI possibly quitting on you, for no discernible reason.

The Roku experience

As I write this I haven't personally used the Roku a lot, but for setting it up and briefly browsing through the channels added to get an idea of what they offer, and a general feel for the interface. However, another family member has watched a couple films on the box, and a nephew has played Angry Birds on it, both with no complaints so far.

It seems to be that you can pause and play at least some channels at will-- and rewind and fast forward through them too; a capacity we've never had here before (since we've never had a PVR like a Tivo).

There are commercials in at least some free movies on the box. You can also tell you're dealing with the internet, due to time lags for loading things (sometimes lengthy lags). Indeed, some free channels may be so sluggish at times that you'll decide to revisit them later instead (Popcornflix seems to be one of those).

The Roku's user interface still has a few rough spots. I mean, it works relatively well for the viewer's needs, but could definitely use some changes to make it easier, faster, and more convenient. However, the diversity of content sources may be one complicating factor here, as not all channel sources seem to necessarily play by the same rules. For instance, there's a country music video channel you can't seem to pause or use the back button for, and can only escape by pressing the Home button on the remote. And a few channels offer so many choices film and episode-wise that browsing through them via a couple rows of several large images at a time can require hours (seriously). Some Roku channels try to help here by loosely organizing selections by genre.

Note that even being careful to add only free channels will still leave you facing various pleas to buy something from some of them. E.g., several free channels also offer premium versions for a fee.

One Roku required per TV

Will one box serve more than one TV? No. Not in any practical fashion. I mean sure, you might be able to split the output to several different TVs via a composite cable hack, but it'd all be the same content: e.g., everyone would have to watch the same thing. So you need separate Roku boxes for every TV. But for what they have to offer, the boxes seem relatively inexpensive, at just $50.00 ($49.99) for the lowest priced wifi only model, sans HDMI cable (the composite cabling is bundled). The comparable annual cost of a cable TV subscription with no premium channels at all for us would be over $700. That's equivalent to fourteen of the cheapest Roku boxes. So you could basically outfit every TV in maybe three or four average homes with a Roku box, for the annual cost of a single cable TV subscription.

If we decide to deploy several boxes here, I'll have to do some reconfiguring of our LAN, since our existing internet wires don't tend to lead to the desired TV locations, and our present wireless router is a low end model of limited range and minimal support for multiple devices.

Bandwidth considerations

I also wonder about how much our bandwidth usage will increase with just this first box, let alone a second or third. For US ISPs have been slapping bandwidth caps on users all over, and hiking fees. And even if that didn't turn out to be a risk, we've suffered lots of net outages and slowdowns with our provider the past year, and I also wonder if they're giving us sufficient speed and reliability to support something like two or three people watching different video streams at the same time.

Users of set top boxes like this may also have to learn some new TV viewing habits: for every second of TV streaming consumes some of your available bandwidth from your ISP. So you don't want to have it streaming when no one's watching, or after you fall asleep. Of course, any particular movie will usually end around a couple hours after it begins, and you can also pause many films and TV shows on the box. But not all the selections can be paused with the remote. And some of the channels are live feeds, which may sometimes continue indefinitely, so far as I can tell, unless you manually cut them off, or the source finally runs out of material (and doesn't go into an infinite loop). So theoretically it might be possible to call such a feed up, then forget about it or leave your home for an errand, and maybe end up with it blowing your allotted monthly internet bandwidth all to hell, in just a single day or two. Yikes!

Note that it's possible for you to even switch off your TV, while the Roku streaming continues on, unabated-- so you could be burning bandwidth even with a dead TV. This scenario seems very likely to happen sooner or later in a household with kids or multiple adult members, or to an owner who simply doesn't understand how internet TV works.

Roku private channels

Besides the decent variety of channels offered by the official Roku Channel store, so-called private channels are available on the internet too. These private channels may be works which are currently undergoing testing to be added to the official roster, or they may be pirate offerings-- it won't always be easy to tell. As such beta and/or illegal works, private channels may sometimes vanish or drastically change without notice. And I suppose you could get into legal trouble too, if you added one knowing full well it was an outlaw item. So exercise some caution. There may also be a risk of malware in such items (although a box reset might be a cure all for that, if and when it happens).

The personal computer enhanced Roku

Besides the need to use your computer to initially set up the Roku, and the possibility of web surfing to gain insight into the offerings of various channels in a practical manner before adding them (as well as find private channels not listed in the Roku Channel Store), it will also be handy to use your computer to gather more intel on various films and TV shows, when you're trying to choose something from a Roku channel's inventory. For Roku's interface usually provides a very bare-bones description of the items. With your computer or iPad though, you can look up the titles on the net to find out who stars in it, when it was made, and the gist of the story, thereby being better equipped to make your selection, and more thoroughly enjoy what you do view.

Doing these manual investigations may be especially important to parents, as much of the free content on Roku is a jumble of all genres, from content for kindergarteners, to mature material for adults: and sometimes there'll be examples of each residing side by side in the listings.

But where net investigations will come in most handy will be for titles which are mature in nature, but not obviously so in the listings. For instance, certain Japanese anime (cartoons) come to mind here. And although some Roku channels display ratings like R and PG and such, not all do.

That's it for this first look. I'll write more if and when I run across anything else of note regarding the box and its services.

I haven't yet added the extra memory card to the Roku.

POSTSCRIPT: When I tried an Apple HDMI cable meant for Apple TV, it worked between the Roku and our LG TV (the Apple cable also cost around $20.00, compared to about $5.00 for an HDMI cable from Roku). On our 1040p LG HD TV, the difference made by the HDMI cable on picture quality wasn't all that great, though-- even after optimizing it with some tweaks to the Roku's settings. So someone like me wouldn't usually miss it, if I used the composite cables instead. Plus, it turns out HDMI cabling isn't very relevant to free content on the Roku anyway-- at least not at this time. Why? Well, apparently there's simply not a whole lot of HD content or video feeds among the free channels we presently possess. It took a while to find some for the comparison. Part of the reason for the scarcity is that HD content is relatively new, so just in general it mostly consists of very new films and TV shows (and most of the free content on the box is made up of older material). In addition, old content can't be converted to HD image quality, because for that the stuff has to have been originally filmed with HD cameras, and those cameras haven't existed for very long. Another reason for the scarcity on the Roku may be the extra bandwidth burden of HD content. That is, what HD we found on the box took lots longer to download than the other stuff, and suffered from more lags and annoying discontinuities in viewing. So for a basic US broadband connection, HD content viewing may be too demanding. But it's also possible that having a robust HD source on the other end might help. For instance, surely channels like fee-based NetFlix and Hulu Plus would stream HD content more reliably to the Roku than many free channel operations might (but I'm only speculating there).

I've also discovered that some Roku channels do possess a search function for their own content, along with an onscreen keyboard by which to use the remote to enter the text to be searched for. END POSTSCRIPT.

6-28-12 SUPPLEMENT: By this point I've personally used the Roku service for literally hundreds of episodes of various TV shows, and a few films, and so am much more familiar with the system.

After a while I noticed our first Roku crashing at times: getting stuck or frozen, and becoming unresponsive. It would also be unusually sluggish sometimes. These could be resolved by powering down the unit, and then powering it up again (I pulled its electrical plug from the outlet, waited 10 seconds, and reinserted it again). However, the more permanent fix was finally inserting the extra memory card and formatting it. This move seemed to speed the box up a bit as well. So I recommend everyone always get the extra memory card when they purchase a Roku. However, you may wish not to actually install it until some time after the initial set up and configuration process (since you'll already have plenty to do right then).

As I haven't much personal experience with modern gadgets using these tiny memory cards, I had to learn from scratch that these things seem spring-loaded. That is, that you're supposed to firmly insert them in one push, and if you wish to remove them afterwards, you push on them again to get them to pop up enough to get hold of for removal.

This insertion process can be complicated by the cramped nature of the card slot in a tiny device like the Roku. For big stubby fingers might not seat the car properly in the first try. Indeed, you may need a tool or implement of some sort to help. Especially in the case where you need to remove the card to start over again (tweezers can help there).

And for those who might wonder about it, the labeled side of the card should face up at insertion, if the top of the Roku is facing up. And when prompted, the answer is yes: format the card.

If for some reason you fail to format the card at that first prompt, you can get the prompt to show up again by pulling the Roku's electrical plug from the outlet, waiting ten seconds, then plugging it back in again, and waiting for the unit to reboot.

I haven't yet purchased an Apple HDMI cable for any of our Rokus, because the composite cables seem to be perfectly adequate, and it's going to be a long while before even 20% of the film and TV content in the world is actually available in that format. Plus, maybe by that point the industry will finally have worked out all the many bugs in HDMI which can plague even legitimate customers these days.

I've now deployed four different Roku boxes: three in our own household, and one in my aunt's. That's how much we like them so far. And we continue to accumulate more free channels of potential interest. My own favorite content so far is the Japanese anime, of which there may be thousands of free episodes available on the Roku, mainly in the Crunchyroll and Crackle channels, but with a few others now popping up as well. But other folks I know have found fascination with things like the available religious content, and various Asian soap operas.

All the Rokus I've deployed have been the XS model, which includes both wifi and Ethernet capabilities. At present two of these Rokus are connected with Ethernet, and two via wifi, and all four seem to be performing well.

You might find it useful to know that all the Rokus on your personal account will automatically load up at initial configuration all the same channels you previously selected for your first unit. But you can create different accounts to link different Rokus to, if you want different channels on different boxes.

a - j m o o n e y h a m . c o m - o r i g i n a l

Copyright © 2012 by J.R. Mooneyham. All rights reserved.